Thursday, December 17, 2015


It’s been said, the more things change, the more they stay the same.  This has been especially true for me over the past several months.

In August I returned home from my annual migration to southwest Colorado, where, for four seasons, I had been guiding tenkara trips for RIGS Fly Shop and Guide Service in Ridgway.  You may know that they were the first fly shop in Colorado to offer professionally guided tenkara trips, and I was their first on-staff tenkara guide.  I had paid my dues as a guide, spending my first season in 2012 sleeping in my truck and camping among bears and vagabonds in pullouts along Owl Creek Pass and the San Miguel River.  Tim and Heather Patterson's amazing hospitality then provided me with much better accommodations during the next three seasons, and I'm forever thankful for that.  In between trips, I had also spent increasingly more time behind the counter in the fly shop, assisting customers and scurrying around as most shop rats do, as there’s never a dull moment when you have to squeeze 75% of your annual business into three summer months.  As I’ve said many times here and to everyone I meet, the RIGS team is an amazing collection of family business owners, fly fishing and whitewater raft guides, and extremely knowledgeable shop personnel.  We worked together, fished together, partied together.  I resigned my position with RIGS earlier this fall. I didn’t know until recently that the Pattersons had written this blog post on the RIGS website upon my departure.  I will never forget where I got my start as a tenkara guide.  Thank you, everyone, for a wonderful experience.  I’m going to miss you!

Throwin' down with the RIGS guide crew and owner, Tim Patterson,
at our favorite haunt in Ridgway...Colorado Boy Brewery.

One of the reasons I made the very difficult decision to leave RIGS was a need to stay closer to home to fulfill my responsibilities as the newest member of Zen Tenkara, a Loveland, Colorado, based company.  Zen made their public announcement of this recently, and I’ve been busy ever since!  I’m honored that Zen asked me to climb aboard, and I’m looking forward to what the future will bring!  Our team at Zen shares a common vision, focused on defining American tenkara and the enjoying the tenkara lifestyle.

Fishing in the San Juan backcountry with Zen Tenkara owner, Karin Miller.
Enter Royal Gorge Anglers.  I’ve known RGA’s Bill and Taylor Edrington for many years.  I met Bill at his Canon City fly shop when Taylor was just a kid back in the late ‘90s.  Taylor is now a grown man, and has taken over the business, while Bill still spends quite a bit of time at the shop.  Since we moved down into town from our mountain home a couple of years ago, I think I could throw a fist-size rock and hit Taylor’s house from where ours now sits, and the two of us have a running joke that we’re responsible for 90% of the wood smoke in our neighborhood.  During a recent conversation I had with Taylor at the fly shop, he asked if I would be interested in creating and guiding tenkara trips for RGA.  In the ensuing weeks, Taylor and I put together several exciting new tenkara trip offerings for RGA, and we’re pleased to be making them public now.  Guiding tenkara trips in the canyons of southern Colorado that I know so well, for my hometown fly shop, in the company of good friends and neighbors is a wholesomely satisfying feeling.  Full circle.

So there you have it.  Changes.  The more things change, the more they stay the same.  New (but somehow old) fly shop and guide service, and new and exciting opportunities with a company that shares a common vision for American tenkara.  My tenkara has not changed, has not faltered.  My love for wild trout and lonely canyons is the same.  The same shining moon keeps looking down.

Wednesday, October 7, 2015

Fins and Fur

The first time I hiked up this trail in search of small game and trout was nearly 40 years ago.  It wasn’t even wilderness back then.  I had a single shot Stevens .410 shotgun on my shoulder, an Eagle Claw Trailmaster rod in my pack, and two cans of Vienna sausages for lunch, with visions of squirrels, grouse, snowshoe hares, and brook trout spinning around my head.  Things really haven’t changed all that much.  Old habits die hard.

This year marked the sixth annual weekend that my group of friends gather for an extended backpack weekend devoted to small game hunting and fly fishing in remote Colorado wilderness.  It’s especially rewarding because it’s the very same country I’ve been hunting, fishing, and backpacking in nearly all my life.  It’s my home away from home, my stomping grounds.

We always take this trip the first full weekend of October.  It’s a week after the close of big game archery season and a week before the beginning of the first combined rifle big game season.  It also coincides most years with the full color of the changing aspens.  The days are warm and the nights are crisp.  It’s perfect.

The Stomping Grounds, downtown Noneofyourdamnbusiness, Colorado!

The bottom third of the hike always provides the best pine squirrel hunting, and this trip was no exception.  We had barking squirrels just a half-mile up the trail, squirrels zipping across the trail ahead of us, squirrels running up tree trunks…squirrels everywhere!

The first pine squirrel of the trip!

I had recently gotten a new handmade squirrel call from Larry Gresser at Prairie Game Calls in Channahon, Illinois.  Larry makes some amazing squirrel calls, and I my new call got some barks.  However, pine squirrels will bark at just about anything, including human voices, dogs, thrown rocks, and the report from a .22 rifle.  Although the Prairie call produces some outstanding barks, the “chrrrr” of the pine squirrel is impossible to produce with any call I’ve found.  No other tree squirrel in North America barks like this.  So, my quest to find the perfect pine squirrel call continues!

My squirrel call from Prairie Game Calls.  Mine is made out
of a beautiful piece of Asian satinwood.

I carried my new Ruger stainless 10/22 Takedown, topped with a Leupold VX-1 2-7X28 Rimfire scope, in Warne QD rings on a Leupold Rifleman base.  What I had hoped would be the perfect backcountry small game rifle soon proved itself, and continued to do so all weekend, taking squirrels and snowshoe hares out to nearly 40 yards.  I dialed the scope in at 4X and left it there, and it worked great.  At a loaded weight of 5 pounds, six ounces, this rifle was easy to carry, made even easier because I had it cradled in a Kifaru Gunbearer while I was hiking.

A very capable critter-getter, my Ruger stainless 10/22 Takedown.

Once we hiked through the squirrel hotspot, we continued up to our hidden basecamp, nearly five miles from the trailhead, at an elevation of eleven thousand feet.  My good friend, Patrick Smith (founder of Mountainsmith, and owner of Kifaru, International) had brought his 12-man tipi, and we had distributed the shelter, poles, and pegs amongst ourselves at the trailhead, each man helping with the load.  Carrying a 12-man tipi may sound heavy, but its ultralight paraglider fabric makes it totally man-carryable.  Along with the tipi, we also carried in an ultralight titanium wood stove, another of Patrick’s ingenious designs.

A Kifaru 12-man tipi and titanium collapsible wood stove.  Our backcountry palace!

Speaking of ingenious designs, Patrick also hauled in a small rice cooker, which works wonderfully well as a tiny backcountry pressure cooker for small game meat.  One complaint that always comes up is how tough squirrel and rabbit meat can be when grilled over coals on an open fire, whether on a spit or on a grill.  The pressure cooker totally eliminates that problem, and after 40 minutes in the pressure cooker, the meat from the squirrels and snowshoe hares literally fell off the bone!  We were very appreciative of the testing that Patrick had done with this method of cooking small game meat, and that he had hauled this treasure in on his back!

Snowline Technical Mountain Gear pressure cooker.  Weight:  1 lb., 13 oz.

Halved and quartered pine squirrels, ready for pressure cooking.

The pressure cooker and the stew, cooking on the Kifaru wood stove.

A pile of falling-off-the-bone tender squirrel meat!

Our evening meal the first night consisted of the meat cooked in the pressure cooker and an assortment of fresh vegetables that I had brought in.  While the meat cooked, the onions, garlic, red and yellow peppers, zucchini squash, and baby potatoes simmered in chicken stock in another pot.  Both pots fit perfectly on top of the Kifaru titanium wood stove.  Once done, all of this was combined into a stew that I dubbed “Rodent Medley”.  To say it was delicious is an understatement!

The fresh veggies I hauled in my backpack.  Baby potatoes, peppers,
zucchini squash, and mushrooms.
Rodent Medley!  A backcountry epicurean delight!

Late the first night I awakened to the sound of snow sifting down the fabric of the ultralight tarp I was sleeping under.  Rising the next morning to fresh tracking snow, I was able to put the stalk on a nice snowshoe hare, which became food for the second night’s dinner.

A snowshoe hare, taken in fresh tracking snow.

The second day of our trip was devoted to fly fishing, more specifically to tenkara.  Several of us had brought our tenkara rods and a few simple flies, and we knew from past experience that the creek nearby was home to lots of 7-9” brook trout.  With a complete tenkara fishing kit weighing less than five ounces, the ability to take it anywhere you go in the backcountry  makes this a great way to feed yourself in the wilderness.   I arrived back at camp late in the afternoon on the second day with four trout to share.  Nearly everyone else had caught a few as well.  The “surf” in our “surf ‘n turf” meal was secured!  We ate the trout as an appetizer, and dined once again on Rodent Medley stew.   I don’t know when I’ve enjoyed a meal more!

Grilling brook trout on the coals.

My tenkara rod and my .22 rifle.  Making meat in the backcountry!

Later, after dark on the second night, we were pounded with rain, graupel, hail, and wind.  It’s a good feeling, snug and warm in a down bag, inside a bombproof shelter, listening to heavy weather drum against the tarp while lightning bounces off nearby ridges.  I can really sleep well after a storm like that.

Late the last morning we pried ourselves from our campsite and started our hike back down.  It always amazes me how easy this hike is going out and how difficult it can be going in.  You really can’t appreciate it until you hike downhill for five miles going out.  After easing off our packs at the trailhead, shaking hands, and saying goodbye to good friends, we all drove home our separate ways, dreaming of next year’s trip in search of fins and fur.

Rob, on the hike out.

Ori, Randall, and I.

My sensei, Patrick Smith, and I.  

Saturday, September 12, 2015

Gear I Use: HCD-Floater

Field Journal Entry (September 6, 2015)  I forgot to take my headlamp out of the truck and stick it in my waders.  It’s dark, it’s 8:00 PM, and I’ve stumbled my way back upriver to where I parked along the highway.  I got to the boulder garden at 5:00 PM, threw a hopper-copper-dropper rig for two hours with a 12-foot floating line, switched over to a single hopper pattern for the last hour, and caught around twenty browns.  I didn’t count.  This is what September in the canyons is all about!

September and October on the Arkansas of my favorite times of the year!  Just right for a HCD-Floater rig and a tenkara rod.

Over the past 30 years or so I’ve come to realize that there are very few, if any, absolutes when it comes to fly angling.  However, there ARE some things that work undeniably well, and John Barr’s three-fly system, the hopper-copper-dropper (HCD), is one of those, and there’s no reason why this can’t be done with a tenkara rod!  There are times and places for going trad, and my full-flex rod, 3.5 level line, and eyeless sakasa kebari patterns are what I go for.  Some days I’ll fish that way with only one pattern, and it’s very enjoyable.  Then there are other times and places when it’s equally enjoyable to test the capabilities of a tenkara rod.  That’s what this article is about.

In an article on I read a while back, co-written by Barr and Charlie Craven, they had this to say about the HCD…

“Barr’s three-fly method removes most of the agonizing gamble that comes with deciding what trout might choose to eat on any given day and where. John Barr, who conjured up the solution from his tying bench in Boulder, Colorado, calls it the ‘Hopper-Copper-Dropper’, an alliterative way to describe a setup that is as risk-free as angling ever gets.

Barr didn’t invent the three-fly method. Anglers have been tossing–and tangling–multiple-fly rigs for years. But he has refined that approach into a system that has not only proven itself on Colorado’s hard-fished waters but around the United States.”

I’ve been pushing the envelope of what tenkara is capable of doing for quite a while, so I thought why not give the HCD a try?.  I’ve basically taken the “traditional” HCD used by western fly anglers, refined it for use with tenkara, and the results couldn’t have been better!  This isn’t an approach for ALL mountain water, but it is an approach for a LOT of mountain water, especially if your personal adventures take you to rivers like the Arkansas, my local “big” river.  


A classic (western) HCD setup includes a #10 BC Hopper strike indicator/top fly, a relatively heavy  #14 Copper John dropper, and a smaller midge emerger, caddis pupae, or baetis emerger bottom fly.  I started out with the pattern sizes that would be used with a typical 5 or 6 weight western fly rod, and found them to be too big.  So here’s one tip…go down one size on all three, if you can.  This will make the three-fly rig a little more wind resistant when casting or when it’s windy, and it’ll work with the more flexible tenkara rod (more on rods later).  Here are my favorite HCD-Floater combos for tenkara:

Hopper/Indicator Patterns:
#14 Baby Boy Hopper
#14 Moorish Hopper
#14 Hippie Stomper (red)
#16 Yeager’s Trude Neversink (peacock) (FAVORITE)
#14 Amy’s Ant (red)
#14 409 (red)
#16 Chubby Chernobyl (tan/tan)

Copper John/Mid-size Droppers:
#16 Copper John (red)
#16 Rubber Legs Copper John (FAVORITE)
#16 Poxyback PMD
#16 October Caddis Larva
#16 Psycho Prince (purple)
#16 Montana Prince
#18 Two Bit Hooker

Bottom/Smallest Dropper:
#18 Gunkel’s Shot Glass Emerger (FAVORITE)
#18 RS2
#18 CDC Pheasant Tail
#18 Gold Ice
#18 Jujubaetis
#18 Jujubee Midges

A #10 BC Hopper.  A classic top fly for HCD with a western fly rod,
 but a bit too big for a tenkara rod.

#14 Hipper Stomper (red)

#14 Amy's Ant (red)

#16 Chubby Chernobyl

Classic #16 "coppers" for HCD-Floater
on a tenkara rod.
#14 Moorish Hopper

HCD-Floater "droppers", all #18


The HCD-Floater method works best with a floating line, and RIGS FLY SHOP MAKES THE BEST ONE OUT THERE!  Yeah, I’ve got it, I work for RIGS, but they don’t pay me to push lines.  The RIGS lines speak for themselves, and we sell a ton of them, and for good reason.  I’ve taken the RIGS floating lines from the San Miguel, Big Cimarron, and Gunnison all the way home to the Arkansas.  They just flat out work for the HCD-Floater system (among others).  Here’s why.  First, these are (in the tenkara world) big, brawny rivers.  Most native flows are around 400 CFS in the shoulder seasons, and the water is often 75 feet across.  The wind almost always blows, especially in east-west running canyons like the Colorado and the Arkansas.  You need a line that’s functional in the wind, floats so you can drift that big, floaty hopper drag-free, and one that can effectively cast a relatively heavy three-fly rig.  The line material on the RIGS lines makes all of that possible, with a buoyant, comparatively heavy line.  The addition of a tippet ring makes threading tippet and changing out tippet material infinitely easier.  As a guide who threads a tippet ring hundreds of times each season, I find that a selling point.  As a middle-aged man who wears bifocals constantly, I find that a selling point!  The addition of a large connection loop and an in-line high-vis strike indicator make this a highly functional line for non-traditional tenkara.

With the largest usable tippet for tenkara set at 5X, that’s where I start from the tippet ring on the line down to the top fly.  I use mono for this section of tippet.  I use flouro tippet material from the top fly down to the first dropper, staying at 5X.  The section from the first dropper down to the second gets 6X fluoro.  Going with fluoro on the bottom two sections of tippet keeps visibility down in the water, and fluoro is both denser and stiffer, which helps turn the cast over better than with mono.  I will typically run around 5 feet of tippet from the line down to the top hopper/indicator fly.  The droppers are each run about 16” below the preceding fly.  So, from tippet ring to bottom fly, this setup is just shy of 8 feet in length.  Add a 12-15’ floating line into the equation, and you have 20-23 feet of line from rod tip to bottom fly.  That’s a lot for a tenkara rod to handle, and you really need the right rod to make this work best.  Rods are next.


The rivers are usually “big” on the tenkara scale, the canyons are usually windy, and the HCD and floating line are comparatively heavy.  You don’t want to take a 5:5 level line tenkara rod on a trip like this.  What you DO want to take is a rod that flexes toward the tip (a stiff 6:4 or a 7:3) and is at least twelve (360cm) feet long.  Rods that have performed well for me fishing a HCD on a floating line are the venerable Amago by Tenkara USA, the beautiful Nissin Zerosum 400 7:3, and my current favorite, the now-discontinued (but still available, if you look hard) Daiwa LT39SF.  I much prefer the lighter weight, better balance, and casting performance of the Daiwa, although my Amago sure did catch a lot of browns on the Arkansas.  In a pinch, the Iwana by Tenkara USA would do, and if you have the Daiwa LT36SF it would do even better.  Both rods are a little short at twelve feet and 390 centimeters respectively, but they’ll work.  I think you get the idea…a 12-foot-plus, tip-flex rod.

You’ll need a rod like this because of the weight of the line and flies, and the ever-present wind.  A mid-flex rod simply can’t keep up with either very well.  A third factor that a tip-flex rod will handle better is current.  Bigger water means heavier flows, and turning a 16” brown trout in 450 cfs water takes a robust rod.

Casting an HCD-Floater rig requires a slower cast, a little more pause at the end of the backcast, and a bit of a push going forward to deliver it to the water.  It’s not complicated, but it’ll take a few casts to get in the groove.  Once you get in that groove, it’s pretty easy to nail the same seam, the middle of the same big pocket, or the mid-current glass that you’re aiming for.

Well, there you have it, non-traditional tenkara at its best.  Some may even say that it’s not really tenkara.  Matters not to me.  What I do know is that I’m using a tenkara rod, and it’s a whole lot of fun!  So, if you want to experience the possibilities of non-traditional tenkara, or love fishing the HCD with a western fly rod and want to try it with a fixed-line rod, give it a try!